When I lost my job at the end of February, one of the first things I did was go to New Jersey Audubon’s Scherman Hoffman sanctuary to volunteer.
After years stuck inside behind a desk, I wanted to do physical labor outside rather than help out in the store.
Volunteers are always needed at this most venerable of institutions, including those willing to offer time, energy and muscles.
But around the time spring was starting to win its fight against winter I got another job, which cut down on my volunteering time. It wasn’t until after the Halloween storm that downed a lot of the property’s trees and left the center without power for over a week that I could finally come in with my pitchfork, shovel and gloves.
The task, said Stephanie Punnett, the head teaching naturalist, was to plant four native shrubs to show visitors how durable they are (as opposed to the hothouse hybrids you can buy at your local garden store).
Stephanie and I took two pots each of swamp azalea and dwarf spicebush down the Field Loop and I waited while she placed them in position.
This is not as easy as it may appear.
New York’s Central Park may look like a natural setting but everything in it - every rock, tree, shrub, even the streams - are manmade and had to be placed just so to give the plants the ability to take root and thrive and look like they’ve always been there.
Stephanie, in her way the Frederick Law Olmstead of Scherman Hoffman, had to make sure these plants would have enough sun while also enough shade. Like any garden designer she had to plan ahead for how much summer sun these shade plants would get six months from then, and make sure they were far enough in the woods to look natural yet be easy for visitors to see from the trails.
She had one great advantage over the average New Jersey home gardener - the extremely sturdy deer fencing around the hilltop part of the property, including where the education building is located. Without this fencing, the shrubs would be just another snack for hungry deer.
Beyond the fencing, along the sanctuary’s Dogwood or the River trails, you don’t see a lot in the way of shrubbery except for the invasive types you’d rather not have, the knotweed and the barberry. The native plants that were growing in the woods back when they were part of the Scherman or the Hoffman estates disappeared as the deer increased. That’s no coincidence.
Once Stephanie was done, I went to work.
It’s usually not easy putting in a shrub. You have to hope the ground is soft enough to yield to the shovel and that there are no roots or stones making it hard to dig a deep enough hole.
I have a lot of experience putting in shrubs and grasses in my garden and I’ve found using a fork helps a great deal in loosening the dirt before I put my full weight behind the shovel.
Three of the four shrubs went in relatively easily. The fourth - well off the trail, behind a fallen beech tree that was tough to get around but which made a good hanger for my coat and binoculars - required me to move the shrub a couple of times to avoid thick roots. Sometimes a couple of inches can make a big difference.
Each time I finished putting in a shrub I would toss the empty pot to the trail as a marker. This made it very easy to find the shrubs again when I finished and went off to take a break.
I must say, I impressed myself. When I came back for the pots I found all four shrubs looked as though they had been growing in those spots for years, not put in the ground less than an hour before.
It gave me a warm feeling to know that if they survive a New Jersey winter, these plants will be around for a long time to come, adding beauty as well as being a natural teaching tool. They will flower and then provide berries for the birds, too.
They’ll also be a bit of me left behind, even if you don‘t see my name on them. But I‘ll know. And isn’t that what volunteering is all about?
Margo D. Beller
If you're interested in volunteering for Scherman Hoffman, please contact Denis Cleary at 908-766-5787 or firstname.lastname@example.org.